Reader Request Week 2021 #1: Creative Kids in a Computer Age
It’s Monday, and that means it’s time to start this year’s Reader Request Week! To kick things off, Matt S asks:
Computers today are mostly consumption devices. Tablets, cell phones, smart watches… How do I make sure my young son will grow up having the passion to CREATE instead of only passively being entertained?
Well, here’s the thing: Lots of media-bearing technologies are mostly consumption devices, and historically more so than computers. Television is primarily a consumption device. Film is primarily a consumption device. Radio is primarily a consumption device. Books are primarily a consumption device. LPs, CDs, cassettes and 8-tracks: consumption devices. Newspapers and magazines: consumption devices.
Moreover, each of them in their day caused lots of handwringing about idleness and lives wasted by them. Go back to the 18th and 19th centuries and you’ll see lots of griping about novels and how they wreck the mind, especially when women read them. More recently, I don’t need to remind anyone over the age of 40 of how television spent decades as the “big bad” of the media landscape, promising endless hours of mind-wasting entertainment that sucked people’s will to live, or, at least, to go outside. No matter where or how you got your entertainment, be assured that at some point in its past it was viewed as an evil, something making people passive, complacent and uncreative.
What’s different about the computer? Mostly that as a technology, it is multipurpose where previous media technologies were single-purpose. Now your computer, tablet or phone — which are all of course just computers of varying sizes — can be the TV and radio and book and newspaper and a dessert topping and a floor wax (incidentally, if you got that last joke, you’re officially old). This gives rise to the complaint that all people do anymore is look into a single screen; this is not inaccurate, but also vaguely unfair. One device obviates the need for most people to have to apprehend several different things for their entertainment. When I’m looking at a computer screen I could be watching a video or reading a book or making a comment on social media, and so on.
And as a creator — well, look, I’m thrilled that computers have made it easier for people to consume. The rise of the cell phone and the rise of the audio book as more than a marginally popular creative medium are highly correlated, and at the moment audiobooks comprise a good third of my income. Likewise, much of my readership prefers the eBook format to print, and carry all my books with them wherever they go, as data on (or accessible by) that phone, tablet or laptop. And, of course, hello, you’re reading this on my web site, which is entirely dependent on a computer screen. Thank you for staring into screens, people! You’re feeding my pets!
Another thing: The computer is indeed mostly a consumption device, but it has also made it much easier for people to create as well. Once again: Hi, welcome to my web site! For twenty-two years now I have been self-publishing here, and in that course of time I’ve written millions of words with no more effort than it takes to type them and hit a “publish” button. Likewise, I can create photography and present it electronically, with far less effort and cost than photography would have required in the film era. Equally, I can create a video and present it to the world in minutes. Or record a song! Or whatever!
Whether that ease of creating and publishing is a good thing overall is an entirely different discussion, mind you, and not one I’m going to essay in this discussion. However, I can say it’s been good for me. I wrote my first short stories as a teen on a computer. I’ve never had a creative or professional life where a computer of some sort or another has not been actively involved, either as the primary instrument of creation or as a major component of its publication.
So with respect to your kid having the urge to create in the age of computers, Matt, I would say: Don’t worry about it too much. If your kid has the urge to create at all (some people don’t! And that’s okay!), then the computer isn’t going to squash that out of him — in fact, it will give him tools to create, and he will use those as he will, in conjunction with or exclusive of, physical creative tools.
What you should be doing as a parent, I think, is to encourage that creativity when it arises. If your kid likes taking pictures, show him how to do it on your phone or a tablet and then let him run around taking photos of the things he likes. Drawing? Fire up a sketching program and let him play with that. Lots of kid-oriented video games have an explicitly creative component to them, encouraging the players to build their own scenarios and characters. And so on. If you make the point that the computer is for creating as well as consuming, then your kid will incorporate that into his worldview. Now, it also means you will need to be actively engaged in how your kid is using those creative tools on the computer, but as a parent, you should be doing that anyway.
Should you be encouraging your kid to do creative things away from the computer? Sure, there is more to life than just staring at a screen. That said, in my experience the best way to encourage creativity in (most) children is, one, not to force it and, two, not to look down at the direction of creativity your child wants to explore. Do you want your child to be creative, or do you want him to be creative specifically in a way that hits all the “creative” checkmarks in your brain? If the latter, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Also, here is a real thing: While you absolutely should make time in your child’s life for creativity and play, and encourage both without a goal in mind other than “hey, let my kid have fun,” also realize that before every creator was known for their creations, they were consuming media and entertainment — lots of it. That’s how we learned to create: By seeing what others did and then gradually seeing ourselves doing the same. If you saw me at eight years old, or fifteen years old, or, hell, at twenty-five years old, you would not have seen someone who appeared to be destined to become a best-selling novelist. You’d see someone staring into a lot of screens, watching what other people had put on them. Consuming media is not inherently a problem! Creativity is not inspired in a vacuum! People’s creativity is on their schedule, not anyone else’s!
As they say: The kids are all right, in this era just like the ones before it. As a parent, realize you can use the computer to create as well as consume, and make it part of your parenting plan to get your kid to realize it too. Then let him explore and play and find what interests him creatively, online and off. And if all he wants to do right now is watch things, don’t panic. That’s part of creativity too. It’ll pay off in his own creativity, or not, but in the meantime you’re supporting the creativity of others, and that’s not a bad thing, either.
(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)